"a loathsome Plague Called Reaction": Fear in Prescriptive Conservative Thought


C.Leo Strauss- A return to the Ancients



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C.Leo Strauss- A return to the Ancients


For the third 20th century thinker to apply this standard to, a more unconventional name comes to mind. Leo Strauss, the Jewish émigré who began writing and teaching in the U.S. when he moved from London in 1938, is both one of the most influential and one of the most controversial thinkers in the modern conservative canon. Although not considered politically active or relevant while he was writing, his work, and particularly the way in which he inspired others, has often been credited for planting the early seeds of the Neo-Conservative movement in the early 1990’s, led by Irving Kristol.208 Kristol and other self-proclaimed Straussians like Paul Wolfowitz, Robert Bork, and Carnes Lord became active in politics in the 1980’s and 90’s and held strong influence during the presidency of George W. Bush in the early 2000’s.209 This created a connection between Strauss and the Iraq War in 2003 that was promulgated by the popular media of the time.210 Still, there is significant debate about whether he was a conservative at all. Catherine and Michael Zuckert, two of his most ardent critics instead suggest he was not particularly interested on contemporary politics, and that “the Strauss links to Neo-Conservativism has been much overstated.”211 Strauss scholar Steven B. Smith wrote a chapter in his book dedicated to Strauss entitled “What Would Leo Strauss Do?” in which he wrote “Strauss would be deeply skeptical of President Bush’s remarks about an ‘axis of evil’ in his State of the Union Address after 9/11.”212 So what is the cause of this inspiration? If Strauss himself had no interest in politics, and was not himself particularly conservative, why did Straussians rally around his ideas?

Strauss scholar Anne Norton addresses one of the reasons behind this in her book Leo Strauss and the Politics of American Empire. In her first chapter, she makes a key distinction between Strauss himself, students of Strauss, and so-called “Straussians,” who were disciples of his ideology but not necessary his ideas.213 The term “Straussian” is problematic to Norton, because “it implicates Strauss in views that are not necessarily his own.”214 It is these Straussians that have “made a conscious and deliberate effort to shape politics and learning in the United States and abroad.”215 These Straussians are great in number, and spread across all of academia- Norton notes a difference between “East Coast” Straussians and “West Coast” Straussians- and are considered so prominent and distinctive that they can often become victims of discrimination.216 Notable Straussian scholars include Thomas G. West, Harvey Mansfield, and, of course Allan Bloom, who was discussed in the section on Clinton Rossiter.217 Like any group, it is problematic to assume homogeneity- certainly there are Straussians who do not endorse the Neo-Conservative movement, contrary to some of Norton’s ideas. Still, oftentimes the actions of these self-identified disciples is tied to Strauss himself, without direct connection to his own works.

The question now moves to what Strauss’ thought was, and how he inspired such a vociferous following. The answer to the first question is deceptively simple: Strauss preferred Ancient to Modern, and led his students to revive and reinvigorate the thought of classical scholars like Plato and Aristotle instead of fixating on more modern thinkers like Hobbes and Locke.218 Catherine and Michael Zuckert describe a Strauss that saw “a crisis of Western civilization” growing up, influenced by his experiences as a German Jew during Hitler’s rise to power.219 This inspired him to dive into the realm of philosophy, and understand the ideas that dominated his time. What he discovered disappointed him- a world built on Hobbes, Locke, and Machiavelli, false idols of abstraction and writers that placed an emphasis on the individual that Strauss was not necessarily convinced of. Strauss’s opinions on the natural rights thinkers that were so fundamental to the formation of the Western canon were controversial for sure, and contrasted with the thoughts of several of the prescriptive conservatives already mentioned. He identified property as central to Locke’s work, writing in his book Natural Right and History, and addresses some of his issues with Locke thusly:

Locke’s doctrine of property is directly intelligible today if it is taken as the classic doctrine of “the spirit of capitalism” or as a doctrine regarding the chief objective of public policy…. But to say that public happiness requires the emancipation and the protection of the acquisitive faculties amount to saying that to accumulate as much money and other wealth as one pleases is right or just, i.e. intrinsically just or by nature just.220

Strauss is not particularly convinced of this. Still, according to the Zuckerts, he thinks problematic thinkers like Locke have value: “In order to make progress, Strauss explained, it is necessary to begin in a defective condition from which one can move to a better.”221

So what did Strauss think was the more ideal way to think about society? It appears as though he thought Burke might have been on the right track. The final chapter of Natural Right and History, entitled “The Crisis of Modern Natural Right,” begins by addressing Rousseau, who is likely the most notable modern critique of natural rights theory.222 Rousseau seems to come closer to Strauss’s ideals of philosophic expression and reinvigoration of civil society.223 But after Rousseau, he moves on to Burke, whom he says “attempted, at the last minute” a return to a premodern conception of natural right.224 Strauss argues that Burke’s fascination and love of British constitution is actually better understood by looking back at ancient philosophy, particularly that of Cicero, for answers.225 To Strauss this comparison is a great compliment:

Among the theoretical writings of the past, none seems to be nearer in spirit to Burke’s statements on the British Constitution than Cicero’s Republic. The similarity is all the more remarkable since Burke cannot have known Cicero’s masterpiece, which was not recovered until 1820. Just as Burke regards the British Constitution as the model, Cicero contends that the best polity is the Roman polity; Cicero chooses to describe the Roman polity rather than to invent a new one, as Socrates had done in Plato’s Republic.226

Strauss’s parallel between Burke and Cicero goes even longer- he argues they both made an effort to inform readers that their great tradition was “not the work of one man.”227 Strauss is difficult to understand at times because, much like Kirk, he uses the voices of his subjects to speak his mind for him. Still, there can be no doubt that his love of ancient philosophy rivaled none other. Steven B. Smith wrote “the lesson Strauss leaves us with is: what today can we learn from the ancients?”228 The Zuckerts put it another way- “The theme of Strauss’s political philosophy is… political philosophy.”229 Strauss sees this same spirit in Burke- although Burke himself may not admit it- when he concludes his book by saying “Burke himself was too deeply imbued with the spirit of ‘sound antiquity’ to allow the concern with individuality to overpower the concern with virtue.”230

If Strauss saw Burke as a kindred spirit in political philosophy, did he share Burke’s fear? He certainly shared the Irishman’s love of tradition, but was his fixation on philosophy for philosophy’s sake contradictory to his inclusion in this Burkean prescriptive camp? It certainly throws a wrench into the categorization, but his fear of the “big ideas” of others outweighs the potential incongruence of his own big ideas. In particular, Strauss viewed two of the great problems of the modern age to be Historicism and Relativism. Historicism, as the Zuckerts define it, meant to Strauss “the replacement of philosophical questions with historical questions,” emphasizing context over ideas.231 It may sound contradictory- Strauss opposes a big idea that downplays big ideas- but Strauss believe that it downplays the traditions that are still relevant to him today for the sake of context. His critique of historicism can be well understood alongside his thoughts on positivism, which argued in favor of moving past philosophical questioning and into examining the “how?” instead of the “why?”232 Strauss argued that this notion, believing that society has moved past philosophy in some sense, “vastly overestimated the power of reason.”233 This kind of “social science” is something Strauss finds himself highly skeptical of, and encouraged his students to critique. From here it becomes clear how students, or disciples, might run with this approach. Challenging new theories and attempts of social engineering is fundamental to prescriptive conservativism. To some Strauss becomes a manifestation of this skepticism, when his message is really much more simple: read political philosophy and develop your own meaning from it.




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